Match of my Years: Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup Final 2021

Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup Final 2021


Stephen Ibbetson doesn’t have far to look back to find an encounter that will live long in the memory and also influence the future of the game for years to come.

I HAVE been nagged at to write this for some time now by Rugby League World editor Lorraine Marsden, as she scraped the barrel of contributors to the magazine to keep this particular feature going. There has just been one problem – having grown up with only the most casual interest in rugby league, there aren’t many matches, nor many years, for me to call on.

I came to the sport at around the same time I came to journalism, and the two quickly combined. So at almost every Rugby League game I’ve ever been to, I’ve been accompanied by a laptop, a deadline and an expectation of neutrality (the latter can slip when Hull FC or Batley are involved, mind).

I’ve always felt like I missed out. No memories of walking up to my favourite ground, no joyful triumphs or painful defeats that shaped my young soul. Football provided that, and my allegiance changed all too late.

Rugby league is a passion, don’t get me wrong. I love it. But it’s also, brutally, a job.

But then something happened. Along came something new and fresh; a party that I wasn’t the last to turn up to, but had the pleasure of discovering at the same time as many others. Something worth really being passionate about.

That was wheelchair rugby league, and it was extraordinary.

From a journalist’s perspective, the game is a nightmare. Matches often have over a hundred points scored, so keeping up with every try – never mind making sense of it all in a short report – is a great challenge.

I’d already watched a couple of wheelchair matches on TV and had a rough idea of what I was in for when I first went to cover last year’s World Cup with a mixture of great excitement and some trepidation.

Expenses being non-existent, England’s group games at London’s iconic Copper Box were out of the question, so I was left with the less enticing of the two groups, which was contested at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.

First day, first up, defending champions France against, by ranking, the next best team in the group, Wales. A little dynamo called Lionel Alazard scored in the very first minute. Then again in the third. He scored five tries in 25 minutes, and six in all. France scored 27.

And they were unbelievable. The speed, the bravery, the skill – with the chairs and with the ball. Disability sport? They all looked pretty able to me. Some of the tries took the breath away. Silky dribbles and diving finishes that shouldn’t even be possible happened every few minutes.

But that opener isn’t particularly etched into my memory because, frankly, a match that finishes 154-6 isn’t much of a match at all, is it?

There were some competitive offerings. The same day, the USA beat Scotland in their first ever match. Ever. Wales bested the Americans in another feisty tussle in the second round of games, before doing likewise against Scotland.

It was easy to forget that matches had disabled playing with non-disabled, men playing with women, fathers playing with their sons, because every game had moments to make you wince and moments to make you gasp. If it was left at that, wheelchair rugby league would already have been my new favourite sport. But the peak was still to come.

Only with the World Cup final did I see England for the first time. It was the match-up we anticipated, against those dazzling French, but boy did it surpass all expectations.

The first jaw-dropping moment came when walking into the venue, Manchester Central. The distinctive arched roof of the former railway station made for a truly awesome backdrop, and underneath it lay an immaculate purple floor and almost 5,000 seats, many filled over an hour before kick-off. All would be taken by the time the teams came out in a blaze of pyrotechnics.

The game was nip-and-tuck throughout, the quality extraordinary, the best two sides in the world showing what the pinnacle of the wheelchair game looked like. No quarter given, and a low-scoring affair any journalist could keep up with.

However, as no doubt for most watching on that Friday night, two things stick in the memory – the antics of one of the officials, Laurent Abrial, who let his Frenchness get the better of him in both decision-making and then mime-artistry, and the try by England captain Tom Halliwell with three minutes left which secured a 28-24 win and blew that great roof straight off.

Little moments stand out too. Halliwell being brought tears in the press conference by a congratulatory message from his idol Rob Burrow. The players with their families after the crowds swept out, taking in the scale of their achievement. Several of those same players turning up worse for wear at Old Trafford for the other World Cup finals the following day, after a night of much drink and little sleep. Ordinary people, extraordinary things.

There was something truly special about that evening; not just the breathtaking quality of the action on the field, or the wonderful way it was presented, but how the combination of both demonstrated the full potential of wheelchair rugby league as a genuinely elite sport. It felt not like the end, but like the start of something, a moment of discovery, not just for me but for the whole sport.

It was the most gripping and enjoyable – if nerve-shredding – rugby league game I’ve ever watched. Finally I had that match, that memory, that I know will always stay with me.

And in many ways, it seems perfect. After all, why look back to the past when you can instead watch the future?

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone